Yahoo's offers cookie opt-out button ahead of new EU law

Yahoo launches new cookies scheme, but many are still struggling with how to adopt the new law

Yahoo has anticipated a new European Union directive by introducing a feature designed to ensure Web users' privacy through the use of an opt-out button for cookies.

The new feature, announced by the company on Friday, may help E.U. countries comply with a new law that comes into force on May 25. The Yahoo move also comes after months of concern and speculation in Brussels that most E.U. countries are in no way prepared to implement a new rule also known as the "Cookie Directive."

The new law will force companies to obtain "explicit consent" from Web users before they make use of cookies -- files placed in a user's browser to track online activity across numerous websites. The law was passed in 2009, with member states given until May this year to get ready for implementation.

The directive rules that a cookie can only be stored on a computer or accessed from the computer if "the user has given his or her consent, having been provided with clear and comprehensive information." But there has been confusion as to what this actually means in practice. It is unclear whether the fact that a browser is set to accept cookies can be taken as consent, although some countries are working with browser makers in an effort to come up with ways of complying with the directive.

But Yahoo's new plan may or may not meet the legal requirements. The plan allows users to click an "AdChoices" button visible in the upper right-hand corner of ads. This will provide users with information about Yahoo's advertising business and the chance to opt out of cookies. To many this seems like a much more practical solution than requiring users to opt in or out of cookies for every single advertisement.

However, the Yahoo plan is not specifically aimed at complying with the new directive. That may be a side effect, explained a spokesman, but this plan is being rolled out across Europe due to the success of a similar initiative that has proved popular with the advertising industry in the U.S. Europe's online advertising industry is estimated to be worth US$20 billion a year.

Yahoo also wanted to play-down the opt-out aspect of their AdChoices plan. "It is more about letting users manage their cookies. They can also opt-in to the categories that they are interested in," said the spokesman.

"Businesses like ours depend on the trust of our users and Yahoo's goal is to ensure that interest-based advertising which benefits both consumers and advertisers becomes familiar practice both within the industry and among web surfers themselves," said Justin B. Weiss, director of international privacy and policy at Yahoo.

The European Commission is in charge of deciding whether the self-regulation proposals from member states comply with the new law. Meanwhile the E.U.'s cybersecurity agency, ENISA, recently published a position paper on the security and privacy concerns regarding new types of online cookies. The agency recommended that both the user browser and the origin server must assist informed consent.

The purpose of the new directive is to reform rules with a view to "ensuring a high level of consumer protection and of users' rights, in particular the right to personal privacy and data protection in the electronic communications field." This must also extend to less technologically aware citizens and some digital rights groups are concerned that resetting cookie preferences in a browser is not sufficiently straightforward.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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Jennifer Baker

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